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The Artist as Alchemist: The Craftsmanship of Mary Heebner

Part I of II

An Interview of Volume 5 cover artist Mary Heebner

by Silver Webb

Step into Mary Heebner’s Santa Barbara studio and you step into layers of history, craft, and beauty. Mary, a warm, lively woman and longtime Santa Barbara resident, invited me for a studio tour, which is filled with collages that incorporate both sketches and photos she’s taken of classical statuary and then transformed them into something living, filled with color and emotion. The collages themselves are extraordinary to look at, but more so when you understand that every level of the work is made by the artist, starting with the paper.

Mary has taken great care to learn how to create paper, beginning in 1985 with papermaker Sukey Hughes (The Art of Washi , 1978), and most recently, she made paper during a residency in Fabriano, Italy, where the watermark technique was developed in the XIII century. There she used watermark as a drawing technique. She joins craftsmanship, graphic design, and art in a way that invites you to dive deeper and deeper into her images. As Mary says, “Making paper is a process I find meditative and centering. Ideas come while I am engaged in the making that greatly inform the project at hand. The act of papermaking is very sensual. I learned early on that unlike canvas, each different type of paper receives pigment, print, or graphite distinctly, and this excites me—its always new.”

Mary was recently asked by a journal in China, “In what way do you understand the five senses of paper/book: vision, touch, hearing, smelling, tasting?” Her answer is worth repeating: “Paper: The whoosh of a slurry of pulp in water; the smack of the screen as it breaks the surface; the satin sheen of the nascent sheet as water drains away. The scent is clean yet earthy The snap of a bone dry sheet of over-beaten abaca; gampi like a silvery secret whispered in your ear; the texture of monk-rough flax; each fiber’s generous embrace of pigment, or its hesitancy. A line of graphite drawn effortlessly across paper as smooth as pressed bedsheets, made from linen. Watercolor sucked into unsized sheets of cotton. A fine spray from a hose or my breath blowing colored pulp across a just pressed, wet white sheet. Water cascading under the weight of the hydraulic press, splish-splashing on the concrete studio floor and streaming towards the drain. The sight of a stack of cloud white and ivory sheets, of occasional forays into color—blood red for Hamlet; yellow ochre for Lascaux; luminous ultramarine blue for Intimacy.

Here she is making ultramarine blue pigmented and watermarked paper at Dieu Donne NYC, for the book, Intimacy.

So for writers and lovers of books, welcome to heaven. Mary has created handmade books and scrolls that are nothing short of exquisite art, even designing the boxes in which they are housed, all of which are produced under her own simplemente maria press and are sought by institutions and private collectors alike.

When I asked her what first sparked this love of bookmaking, she replied, “The hope is to make a vital object that you can see, hold, touch, recite, unpeel in layers, through a small investment of time. I make books that reveal themselves layer by layer, when read, when scrolls unfurled are held up to the light, the imagery and the words make one another better. Those who opt to take the time, can really get to know what each book is about, and then some.”

If you want a broad perspective on Mary's creation, her 25th Anniversary (1995-2020) catalog Bridging: Image & Word, illuminates the longue durée of a prolific artist. The catalog was designed by Heebner/Simplemente Maria Press to be part of a retrospective exhibition at UCSB’s Special Collections Library Gallery. Due to Covid, this exhibit has been postponed unitl later in 2021. A PDF of “Bridging: Image & Word" available here:As she puts it, “This catalog is a glimpse into how certain travels, work in the studio, and friendships brought forth a growing number of fine art books. My intent has always been to form bridges between words and images in order to best convey the heart of a story. There is a story in everything. My task as an artist is to discover the core, the essence of the story and then to find the form that best conveys it clearly in the most well- crafted and compelling way I can. I find painting to be a very solitary practice; however, making books is more like a play, a collaborative effort. My imprint, simplemente maria press in truth is a net cast wide filled with many skilled and generous people, living and deceased, who have guided me and to whom I am ever grateful. Best of all are the strong friendships that have begun, grown, and will endure through the process of making and of sharing words and images with others. “

Above, Marmo, from Intimacy: Drawing with light, Drawn from stone. Original text, also translated to Italian.

There is still so much more to discuss with the cover artist of Volume 5. Please stay tuned for part II of this interview later in November.

In the meantime, if you'd like some good reading, Volume 5 is available to order in our store:

Photos by permission, courtesy of the artist.

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